Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Houdini the humorist

Here's a terrific twice-signed photo of Houdini currently on eBay. Not only is this an uncommon shot of HH, but I really love what he's written on the back: "It is a foolish thing for any one to sign an empty piece of paper. Houdini, Feb 2 – 1920."

For how often Houdini is depicted as being deadly serious, intense, and even morose (Death Defying Acts anyone), there is ample evidence, like this card, that he was actually pretty mischievous and witty. Just look at any of the existing film of Houdini and you'll see him always smiling and even playful before the camera. Anyway, I love that this card captures Houdini the humorist.

Hot Houdini

Here's one on eBay that I've never seen. This is an XL Hanes T-shirt featuring Houdini's name within the Hot Wheels logo. This shirt is actually a promotion for the band "The Melvins" who released an album called Houdini in 1993. The seller is not sure exactly how many were made, but notes that over the years the band, and this album, have gathered a cult following and this shirt has become quite rare.

Speaking of Houdini and Hot Wheels-type cars, check out this set of Oxford Diecast "Limited Edition" vehicles released in England in 2001 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Houdini's death. This set can also be found on eBay from time to time. Where was all this cool stuff when I was a kid?

UPDATE: SOLD for $75.00 with 10 bids. Not too shabby!

The Dream Machine want to resurrect 'Houdini'

In 1967 the band The Dream Machine -- who enjoyed success as the opening act for The Who -- released their single HOUDINI on Decca Records. Now the band is getting back together and want to record a new 10 track CD called, THE HOUDINI TRILOGY.

An original 1967 HOUDINI single

Go to The Dream Machine page at to find out more or to make a donation to THE HOUDINI TRILOGY project.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Haldane screening to open 'Magicians on Screen' retrospective in NY

The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY will screen Houdini's Haldane of the Secret Service with live music by Donald Sosin on Saturday, December 10, 2011 at 5:30 p.m. The screening is part of the opening day events for their new retrospective, Magicians on Screen.

This is a new 35mm preservation print of Haldane provided by George Eastman House, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The screening will also feature a 7 minute short by video artist Terese Svoboda, The Talking Tea Kettle, which explores Houdini's and David P. Abbott’s battles against fraudulent mediums.

Preceding the screening will be a live magic show by Ben Robinson (4:30pm) and a presentation by Matthew Solomon on "Early Film and Magic" (3:00). Solomon is the author of the excellent Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century.

Magicians on Screen runs through January 1, 2012. You can see the full line-up of screenings and lectures at the The Museum of the Moving Image website.

Monday, November 28, 2011

278 resident throws a Houdini party

A resident of Houdini's former home in Harlem is moving out after ten years and decided to throw a magic themed party on Sunday for friends and a few lucky Houdini aficionados.

Included at the gathering was magician Brian McGovern, who performed at the party, and Michael Cartellone, the drummer for rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd and a major Houdini buff.

What a thrill it must have been for all who attended!

For more on Houdini's house, check out Discovering 278: the home of Houdini.

For the dogs

A few dog related items today. First, even though it was released back in May, I only now just discovered this biography of Sigmund Neuberger aka The Great Lafayette.

Lafayette, who was killed in a theater fire, was utterly obsessed with his dog, Beauty, a gift from Houdini in 1899. In fact, Lafayette was buried with Beauty in a lavish funeral filmed by Houdini.

This book appears to be self-published. At 100 pages, I can't vouch for the content, but at least the cover features Beauty. Lafayette would have approved! You can order The Death and Life of The Great Lafayette by Ian Robertson and Gordon Ruter at New Lands Press.

Also on the dog front today, Kevin Connolly has posted on his blog an unpublished photo of Houdini's dog Charlie with Joe Hayman, one of the original "Brothers Houdini." Charlie is the white Pomeranian said to have been a gift to Harry and Bess by the Grand Duke of Russia in 1903. Check out the pic of "Houdini's Pooch and Pal" at Houdini Himself.

And finally, there's THIS.

If that's still not enough canine action for you, can read more about Charlie, Bobby (dog #2) and Houdini's other pets HERE.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

What happens in Vegas...

Actually, I don't know if this is Las Vegas. In fact, I don't really know anything about this photo of Bessie Houdini in a casino that I found among The Culliton Papers. Who are these men that are either rewarding Bess or taking her money? One thing I do like is in this pic is you can really see just how small Bessie was, even in heels!

Click to enlarge

But there's something more here. This photo actually debunks a major myth. Check out Edward Saint at the slot machine in the background. Not only is it cool to see him holding a cigarette, but look at that big smile on his face. Well, that shouldn't be!

According to The Secret Life of Houdini (page 555), Ed Saint suffered from "nerve paralysis of certain facial muscles" making it "impossible for him to smile." Saint actually took advantage of this condition and performed during his carney days as "The International Smileless Man", in which he would offer audience members $1000 if they could get him to crack a smile.

Well, either that isn't Saint back there (and it sure looks like him to me), or he's put one over on us all. But now he's busted.

By the way, Patrick Culliton can't recall where he got this photocopy, and several other candid shots of Bess and Saint around town (a second shows Saint smiling), so he warned me that it might not be okay to post this. If you are the owner of the original and want me to take this down, just shoot me an email and it will vanish like magic.

Or, better yet, let us know where this was taken and who these men might be. It's a pretty cool, revealing shot, and I think a great way to conclude The Culliton Papers.

UPDATE: Mystery solved. This photo is part of the Richards Studio Collection in the Tacoma Public Library and the caption reads in part: "Beatrice Houdini, widow of the famous magician Harry Houdini, tries her luck with the slot machines while attending a party at Ray Gamble's 'Elephant House' during a visit to Tacoma in July, 1941."

Also enjoy:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Link: John Cassidy's Houdini bust

Check out this page devoted to the famous Houdini bust on the official website of sculptor John Cassidy (1860 - 1939). It covers the history of the bust from the creation of the original bronze during Houdini's 1914 tour of Britain (currently on display at Houdini Art and Magic in San Francisco) to the trials and tribulations of the many copies that have sat atop Houdini's grave in Queens. Click the headline to have a read at

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

SOLD! Houdini straitjacket captures $46,980 at Christie's

The Houdini straitjacket which first surfaced on the popular TV show Pawn Stars sold today at Christie's in London for $46,980 (including buyers premium).

The straitjacket -- which Houdini used for several of his outdoor suspended escapes -- was given to Paul J. Campbell, a salesman for Fleetwood Coffee, by Houdini's brother, Theo. Hardeen, in late 1927 or early 1928. It remained in the Campbell family and was unknown to the Houdini world until last May when it appeared on Pawn Stars. There it was authenticated by magician Murray SawChuck using a photo of Houdini (below) from which he was able to match specific stitching on the jacket.

Pawn Stars star Rick Harrison made an offer of $25,000, but the owner refused and instead listed it on eBay with a starting price of $149,000. There it cycled twice without selling. The jacket was then entered into Christie's Pop Culture: Film & Entertainment Memorabilia auction in London, where it ended its journey today.

One question that remains for me is why Hardeen would give this important Houdini artifact to Campbell, who doesn't appear to have been a magician or even a magic buff. The seller of the jacket says he played with it as a kid, not understanding the value or significance. Maybe in 1928 Hardeen didn't realize the value of his brother's props just yet and was simply looking to get rid of a straitjacket that didn't fit him? Or is it possible that Dash, who was known to be a gambler, gave Campbell this as payment for a gambling debt? If so, it paid off today!

The auction also featured several other Houdini items, including a green sack, also given to Campbell by Hardeen. The auction simply described it as being "used by Harry Houdini for escapology tricks", but I'm wondering if this could have been one of the sacks Houdini used during Metamorphosis? If so, its final auction sale price of $1,958 was a steal!

Congrats to the buyer of this major Houdini artifact.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

New Houdini and Conan Doyle book released in the U.S.

Christopher Sandford's new book about Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is released today in the U.S. under the title Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

The book was released last month in the UK by Duckworth under the leaner title Houdini and Conan Doyle. You can read my full review of the UK edition HERE.

While I confess I prefer the UK title and cover art, this U.S. edition from Palgrave Macmillan compares favorably and contains all the same photos, etc. But what really matters is what's inside, and what's inside is a superb book, probably the best yet written on the subject of Houdini and spiritualism. This is a must own!

Purchase Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini by Christopher Standford on Amazon.

Christopher Sandford will be signing Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini at Books Inc. in Berkeley California on Dec. 5 at 7pm. Click for details.

The Secret Advenures of Houdini

The first book in a new Houdini graphic novel series, The Secret Adventures Of Houdini, is due for release in December 2011. The series is written by Todd Hunt with illustrations by Sean Von Gorman, and finds Houdini in supernatural adventures during the final years of his life. Here's the full description of Book 1 from the official Facebook page:

In the blink of an eye Harry Houdini, a name synonymous with magic and mystery, will have his world forever changed. Armed with a stinging wit and near super-human strength, we follow Houdini’s descent into the secret world of the supernatural.

Our first story begins in New York City where Houdini invades the lair of a supernatural sect determined to raise the spirit of an undead evil saint; Thascius Cipriano. What Harry finds may force him, for the first time in his life, to question his resolute disbelief in the existence of the genuine supernatural. After years of debunking false spiritualists, Harry Houdini is suddenly inducted into a world, which unceasingly challenges his every belief.

Escape with Houdini into a world of magic and sorcery as we witness his greatest metamorphosis from stage magician to hero.

These are the untold stories of the final years of Harry Houdini’s life.

The Secret Adventures Of Houdini can be purchased at, where you can also see several sample pages. Also check out the official trailer below, and watch for my own review coming soon.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Going once... Going twice...

The owner of the authenticated Houdini straitjacket that will be auctioned by Christie's in London on Wednesday (Nov. 23) has shared via our Facebook page this terrific photo of the jacket on display along with other Houdini artifacts. The sale is 6214: Pop Culture: Film & Entertainment Memorabilia. The straitjacket is Lot 71 and the auction estimate is $23,000 - 30,000.

Among the auction's other Houdini items is a curious green sack (Lot 70) that is simply described as "used by Harry Houdini for escapology tricks circa 1915." Could this be one of the sacks he used during Metamorphosis?

Click here to have a look at Christie's ecatalogue. The Houdini items are listed on page 20.

HOUDINI (1953) on TCM tonight

Paramount's 1953 classic HOUDINI will air on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 10PM (ET) and 7PM (PT). TCM broadcasts in HD, so for those who didn't by the Blu-ray, here's your chance to see the film in all it's Technicolor glory. TCM has also posted an excellent article on their website about the movie. Here's a sampling:

Tony Curtis doesn't look a lot like Houdini. Nor does Janet Leigh resemble Bess. But that's okay. The idealized casting perfectly suits the storybook feeling of the film. Filmed in Technicolor, it is engineered to dazzle the eyes, and the peach-complected Curtis and Leigh do just that. Appropriately enough, the film was produced by George Pal, who is best remembered for such visual delights as the animated Puppetoon series and the sci-fi classics The War of the Worlds (made in 1953, the same year as Houdini) and The Time Machine (1960). In its own way, Houdini is as much a fantasy as are Pal's other films. But, as Houdini himself would probably have agreed, reality can be overrated.

S.A.M. hold wand breaking ceremony at Houdini's grave

Wand breaking ceremony in 2010 (Tablet)

The Society of American Magicians held the traditional wand breaking ceremony at Houdini's grave yesterday to commemorate the 85th Anniversary of the great magician's death. The S.A.M. used to hold the ceremony on Halloween, but it drew too much attention to the solemn event. Now the S.A.M. selects a secret date in November to pay respects to their "Most Illustrious" president...and that day was yesterday.

Houdini was president of the S.A.M. from 1917 until his death in 1926. He was actually reelected for another term, hence the seal on his gave notes his tenure as ending in 1927, which can cause puzzlement. The regular practice of breaking a wand in honor of a deceased magician began at Houdini's funeral. While the ceremony is typically performed only once, Houdini has been honored with a formal wand breaking ceremony every year since 1969.

Thanks to attendees Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton for letting me know about this. Dorothy and Dick (along with Steve Moore) recently restored the bust on Houdini's grave, so this was the first time in many years that the S.A.M. didn't have to bring their own. Because of repeated vandalism, the surviving Houdini bust is kept secure by the S.A.M. and was only placed back on his grave for the annual wand breaking ceremony.

Houdini handcuffs find their way to The Dark Side

The Canadian reality show Deals From The Dark Side recently featured a pair of Houdini handcuffs. The show is hosted by "relic collector" and escape artist Steve Santini and airs on Canada’s OLN network. Here is the description of the Houdini episode:

Episode 2: Houdini Handcuffs
Steve gets the rare chance to purchase Victorian handcuffs that were reportedly used by his idol; world famous escape artist Houdini. His exciting journey of authentication includes stops in Scranton, PA to meet with a quirky crew of Houdini experts and the honor of placing a new bust on Houdini’s grave in NY. Will the handcuffs turn out to be Houdini’s? Named the World’s Most Extreme Escape Artist we discover why as Steve performs a daring escape involving power drills driving into his head. Will he survive?

 Thanks to the gang at the Houdini Museum in Scranton for the tip.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Art exhibition in Belgium celebrates Houdini's Vanishing Elephant

A modern art exposition by German artist Jens Brand called "The Disappearance of Media: A Manifestation of Elephants" is set to open at VOORKAMER in Lier, Belgium on November 26, 2011. I'm not sure I entirely understand this exhibition, but from the advertising material it's clear enough that it celebrates Houdini's Vanishing Elephant, and we like that!

Jens Brand’s installation re-stages Harry Houdini’s famous performance “The Vanishing Elephant” from 1918. The magician was one of the first super stars of the early days of media communication. The installation at Voorkamer can be understood as a tribute to that remarkable king of magic but also as a will to meet the audience’s level of expectation. - It can be read at as a tribute to reality.

The exhibition also includes the YouTube video, Not Pictured: Bill Goodwin by magician Lisa Cousins (who recently gave a talk on Houdini and Valentino). In fact, Lisa is the one who alerted me to this exhibition and provided the flyer -- so thank you, Lisa!

"The Disappearance of Media: A Manifestation of Elephants" will be on show through January 22, 2012. You can check out more at

Houdini in The Inquisitor's Apprentice

Houdini is featured in new young adult novel, The Inquisitor's Apprentice by Chris Moriarty (the pen name for Jessica Lasser). The illustrated book is the first in a series of adventures starring 13-year-old Sacha Kessler and the NYPD in an alternate universe New York. While the book is primarily about Sacha and Thomas Edison, Houdini plays a role in the story, and may even feature in future books, according to the author who says:

"Harry Houdini is just about my favorite historic character in the whole book. I have long been fascinated by Houdini, an intensely private man who somehow managed to be a buttoned-down and scholarly rabbi’s son in his private life while doing more than anyone in his day to create the modern American cult of celebrity. There are many, many great books about Houdini, including Brian Selznick’s wonderful illustrated book, The Houdini Box, so I won’t try to tell his life story here. But I will say this: When I first started writing the NYPD Inquisitor books, I only planned to have Houdini appear in book one. But to be honest, I’ve enjoyed writing about him so much that I’m having a hard time saying good bye to him. So no promises, but I think he might be back sometime."

The Inquisitor's Apprentice was released on Oct 4 and is available in hardcover from Amazon. Signed copies can be purchased via the official Inquisitor's Apprentice website.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cover art for The Houdini Specter

Cover art for Titan Books reprint of The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower has been revealed on Amazon. The book will be released on June 12, 2012. This follows Titan's reprints of Stashower's first two books in his "Harry Houdini Mystery" series, The Dime Museum Murders and The Floating Lady Murder, on February 7, 2012.

First published in 2001, The Houdini Specter finds Harry and Dash (Hardeen) investigating a murder with a spiritualist twist in 1898 New York. It was the last book in Daniel Stashower's series and the only one to be published in hardcover as well as paperback.

Titan is rebranding these as "The Harry Houdini Mysteries" with nifty new series cover art.

Titan's other "Harry Houdini Mysteries"

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bean Giant handcuffs lock up $1,236

An original pair of 1887 Bean Giant Handcuffs with key have sold on eBay for $1,236. The auction received 19 bids.

The Bean Giant was one of Houdini's favorite "Handcuff King beaters" -- a cuff that he would use to defeat rival escape artists. Houdini would even offer his challengers the key to the Bean Giant, knowing that the configuration of the keyhole made it impossible to reach. In fact, during Houdini very first show at the Alhambra in 1900, he was challenged onstage by The Great Cirnoc. Houdini defeated him with a pair of Bean Giants.

Can't say I've ever seen a real pair of Bean Giants, and from that final sales price, it appears they are rare indeed. By the way, in the famous photo of a young Houdini with his magic apparatuses (below), you can see his pair of Bean Giants on a table in the background.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Christopher Sandford signing 'Masters of Mystery' in Berkeley, Dec 5

Christopher Sandford will be signing copies of his new book, Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, at Books Inc. in Berkeley, California, on Monday, December 5, 2011 at 7:00pm.

Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini is due for release from Palgrave Macmillan next Tuesday, November 22. The book was released in the UK last month under the title, Houdini and Conan Doyle. You can read my (rave) review HERE.

Pre-order Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini from Amazon (currently 35% off).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Magic Castle fire: "I think Houdini had a hand in that."

The Magic Newswire has a special podcast interview with Magic Castle owners Irene Larsen, Erika Larsen, West McDonough and Milt Larsen about the Magic Castle fire on Halloween. Not only do they provide a first hand account of exactly what happened, but you gotta love it when Irene says:

"I think Houdini had a hand in that. Because we had so much publicity, we were on every news station all day long and even the next day. I mean, it's not the publicity you're looking for, but you know how Houdini loved the publicity [laughs]."

Even Milt chimed in on the Houdini connection:

"That was the anniversary of Houdini's passing in 1926, and one of the rooms that wasn't even touched by the fire was our Houdini Room, so you kinda wonder about those kinds of things. It probably started right around the time that he died so...spooky!"

Listen to the entire interview at The Magic Newswire.

The Castle is currently open Wednesdays through Sundays while repaires are underway. Updates will be posted on the official Magic Castle website.

Sony's Houdini movie to film in Montreal

The Hollywood Reporter says that Sony/Columbia Pictures "high profile film about Houdini" will shoot in Montreal. This is to take advantage of Canada’s "generous all-spend tax credit and additional digital media tax incentives."

While the article doesn't give a start date, this is pretty encouraging news. Hollywood currently has several Houdini projects in the pipeline, but it's not clear when or if any of these will be made. Now it looks like the first one out of the development gate will be the Sony project, which is to be directed by Francis Lawrence from a script by Scott Frank.

According to the last report (back in May), the fictionalized film "will center on Harry Houdini‘s attempts to discredit a beautiful spiritualist, although he becomes obsessed with her and starts to believe she is actually the real deal."

And the new Houdini photos keep on coming...

Check out this page from the Philadelphia North American dated December 23, 1906 which has just listed on eBay. It features a terrific full length photo of Houdini in shackles that I've never seen. This appears to have been taken at the same time as this famous photo. It's amazing to me that after 35+ years at this, I'm still seeing new photos of Houdini. Not that I'm complaining!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Magic History Conference spotlights Minerva The Handcuff Queen

Source: Egyptian Hall/Magic Footnotes
The biennial Los Angeles Conference on Magic History has concluded. I didn't make the invite list this year, so I've had to do some detective work to find out if there was anything Houdini related. So far it appears Harry got the brush, but one lecture I'm sure was of great interest to fans of escape history was a presentation by Gary Hunt on Minerva: Queen of Handcuffs.

Minerva was no fan of Houdini and the feeling was mutual. They had a serious run-in in 1908 when Minerva, like so many others, started doing an imitation of Houdini's Milk Can Escape. Guy Jarrett, a major Houdini hater, later claimed Houdini (or one of his assistants) put lime in Minerva's water barrel and almost blinded her. The story divides magic historians along partisan lines, with Houdini fans not believing Harry would go to such lengths to put a rival out of business, and Houdini haters holding it up an example of just how vicious Houdini could be to competitors.

Where did Gary Hunt come down on the Minerva lime barrel story? According to attendee Richard Hatch (who gave me much appreciated intel via the Genii forums), Gary "seemed to think something had happened, but wasn't convinced of the details of Jarrett's account."

Gary also revealed some rare Minerva posters he uncovered while doing his research.

You can find out more about Minerva and read Gary Hunt's other fine work at his blog, Magic Footnotes.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Trailer for Brian Selznick's HUGO

UPDATE: Unfortunately, this video has been removed.

Here's the trailer for the new film, Hugo, based on a book by Brian Selznick who also wrote The Houdini Box. Hugo tells the fictional story of Hugo Cabret and the true story of magician and film pioneer, Georges Méliès. Lots of things here for magic and film fans to love. Robert-Houdin even gets a nice namecheck in the movie. Hugo opens November 23.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Is this the doctor who first diagnosed Houdini?

An original photo of a man identified as Leo Dretzka has appeared on eBay. The seller speculates that this might be Dr. Leo Dretzka, the doctor who first examined the ailing Houdini when he arrived in Detroit in October 1926 for what would be his final performance.

Dretzka examined Houdini on the floor of his dressing room at the Garrick Theater. Houdini's obituary would later record that Dr. Dretzka diagnosed the magician as suffering from appendicitis and gave him the choice of performing that evening or going to the hospital. I've always thought it odd that a doctor would let a patient experiencing symptoms of acute appendicitis for several days decide if he wanted to go to the hospital or not, but that's what the record says.

Dretzka was actually the first of several doctors to attend to Houdini that tragic day. After Houdini struggled through his performance at the Garrick, he still refused to go to the hospital and instead returned to the Statler Hotel. There he was examined by the hotel physician, Dr. Daniel Cohn, who was substituting for the regular hotel doctor at the time. The young Cohn called staff surgeon at Grace Hospital, Dr. Charles Kennedy, who arrived at the hotel at 3AM and actually misdiagnosed Houdini with either a "ruptured intestine or a clot in the large blood vessel feeding it" (this according to Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss). This was partially based on the information that Houdini had been punched in the stomach in Montreal.

Only after Houdini spoke on the phone with his own physician in New York, Dr. William Stone, did he finally agree to go to the hospital. The next day Kennedy and his team of surgeons discovered that Dretzka's diagnosis had been the correct one. Nevertheless, it was too late as Houdini's appendix had already ruptured, most likely on the train ride to Detroit.

I can't say with any certainly that this is a photo of the Dr. Dretzka. But I guess it could be! The auction starts at $25 and can be found HERE.

UPDATE: Our good friend melbo (Silly Tart) has uncovered another photo of Dr. Dretzka in The Milwaukee Journal. Certainly looks like it could be the same man! She has also discovered via that he worked at St Mary's and the Detroit Receiving Hospital and died in 1930. Good work melbo!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wild About Harry turns 1

Today is the one year anniversary of WILD ABOUT HARRY. This blog when live on November 10, 2010. (Yes, I know we have posts going all the way back to 2002, but those were migrated over from my old site, Houdini Lives.) As of today the site has generated over 175,000 hits.

Thanks to everyone for your support. Here's to Year Two!

The Magic History Conference comes to L.A.

Houdini trunk at the 2007 conference
The Los Angeles Conference on Magic History begins today at the Beverly Garland Hotel in Studio City, CA. Started in 1989, the biennial invitation only event is co-hosted by Mike Caveney, John Gaughan and Jim Steinmeyer. Magic historians from around the world gather to hear lectures, watch performances and share memorabilia related to aspects of magic history.

Unfortunately, I'm not on the list of invited attendees (made all the more agonizing as the conference hotel is only minutes from my home), but this doesn't mean I can't still contribute!

Below are a handful of stories published this year on WILD ABOUT HARRY that I think might be of interest to my fellow magic historians. Have a great time everyone!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Postcard signed by Houdini and T.R. sells on eBay

A postcard signed by Houdini and President Theodore Roosevelt while they were making their famous transatlantic crossing aboard the Imperator in June 1914 has sold on eBay for $1,075. The seller found it among a batch of postcards purchased at a New Jersey garage sale. The postcard reads:

"Dear Gertie, this ship is incredible and very big. Met the former President to-day and the mystic your brother saw. Got both their autographs for Tom. All my love, Walter"

Nice item!

Click here for more on Houdini and Roosevelt's encounter aboard the Imperator, including their famous photo together.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Derek Tait follows Houdini in Britain

Having now read it, I just wanted to give a fresh shout-out and a hearty recommendation for Derek Tait's, Houdini: The British Tours. I always enjoy these passion project/specialty books, and this one is an invaluable resource for us Houdini nuts. Derek has pretty much nailed down every engagement Houdini played in the UK and Scotland, and for the great majority of them he's uncovered newspaper clippings and reviews that he reproduces in full. (I'm going to sit down and use this book to fill in some of the gaps in Koval's Houdini Research Diaries.)

Reading this book one really gets a very good sense of what Houdini's day to day act consisted of -- what remained the same and what he varied. I was especially taken with the great many descriptions of how he presented his challenge packing crate escapes. It was somewhat of a revelation to me that he would encourage the challengers to insert fresh nails into the box onstage (so much for Houdini replacing the nails while the box was in his possession), and that the ropes used to encircle the crate were also nailed to the boards. I don't think I've every heard about this nailing of the ropes, yet this detail is in just about every newspaper account of these challenges. I was also interested in a review from Houdini's final tour in 1920 that says he performed the Milk Can!

I also like that Derek does not just excerpt the Houdini sections from these reviews, but reproduces the entire thing so you can see what other acts were playing alongside Harry. It gives a great sense of the time and place and who Houdini's fellow performers were (I was actually surprised by the lack of variety in some of these variety shows). And did we all know that Houdini shared the bill with Chung Ling Soo during his historic first week at the Alhambra in 1900? Because I'm not sure I knew that! But Derek reproduces the Alhambra program for that week, and there they are! Houdini and Chung Ling Soo on the same bill. Oh to be a time traveller.

The book is profusely illustrated and includes lots of challenge broadsides and newspaper clippings. There is also a terrific drawing, made by an audience member, of Houdini on stage, which gives a great idea of how he laid out his props. At 188 pages, it's also one of the longer specialty books. A few forgivable errors do creep into the text (Herman was the Weiss sibling who died at a young age, not Gladys), but Derek promises updates in the future as he uncovers more about Houdini's appearances in Great Britain.

Houdini: The British Tours is available in two covers (above). If you order direct from, you can choose which cover you want and also get the book signed. It's also available on, but availability there has been sketchy. You can also purchase it for the Kindle via and

UPDATE: Derek has announced a new and greatly expanded edition: The Great Houdini: His British Tours coming in 2016.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Houdini swears by Zam-Buk

The Rose & Co. blog recently posted an advertisement that Houdini did for Zam-Buk, which was some kind of a medicated soothing cream. They rightfully point out that this was a very early example of a celebrity endorsement. Here's another ad from 1910.

The Daily Telegraph, April 5, 1910.

Rose & Co now owns Zam-Buk, and you can actually still buy the product from their website. As you can see in the product description, they are still using Houdini's name to sell it!

Dean Carnegie at The Magic Detective has posted an advert for Zam-Buk featuring Hardeen.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Houdini and Valentino

At this year's annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, CA, magician and historian Lisa Cousins (who performed during the Magic Castle's History Week) gave a talk on the connections between Houdini and Valentino. Something I didn't know was that Houdini attended the funeral of Valentino, who also died in 1926. Unfortunately, I missed the event, but Lisa kindly sent over the transcript of her talk. I thought this was just too good not to share, and Lisa has graciously allowed me to reprint it here, so enjoy.

The Magic of Valentino

Delivered by Lisa Cousins at the 84th Annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service, August 23rd, 2011
There are few people in history whose very name stands for a concept, and Valentino is one of them. To say “Valentino” is to say “Lover.” Valentino is in our language, Valentino is the universally recognized code-word for the utmost in romantic passion
Another name on that short list is Houdini – and in support of my premise that everybody knows what that name means, I’m not even going to bother to explain it. “Houdini.” We’re all clear, right?
I’m from the magic world – which is Houdini’s world – which is a world of skeptics. During the 1920’s Houdini made a specialty of debunking séance-parlor manifestations, proving them to be mere magic tricks
In the same era, Valentino was among those who were actively experimenting with spiritual phenomena. He described his interest in ghosts and the afterlife as being “that of any well-read person.” He wrote “I am not afraid of the dead, or of ghosts. I am not afraid of anything pertaining to the life beyond. And it’s not because I don’t believe in it. It’s because I do.”
Through his experiments with séances and automatic writing, particularly with his second wife Natacha Rambova, Valentino came to believe that he had three spirit guides: an ancient Egyptian named Meselope; an American Indian named Black Feather; and perhaps most significantly, “Jenny.” Jenny was Virginia Mathis, the mother of his good friend June Mathis, who had recently died. It was Jenny who Valentino continuously addressed during his final illness, and you can see her tomb – the crypt of Virginia Mathis – catty-corner from Valentino’s in the corner of the mausoleum
When Valentino died in 1926, Houdini attended the funeral in New York, and then Houdini himself died that Halloween, just a few months later. Both men immediately became popular figures with séance mediums and others who were interested in receiving a message “from the other side”
Although Houdini had never encountered any spiritual phenomena that he could not prove to be a magic trick during his lifetime, he had made a famous promise to his wife Bessie that if there was any way to return from the grave, he would be the one to do it. His long career of proving that he could escape from any restraint made this promise seem appealingly plausible
For ten years his widow conducted a séance on Halloween, the anniversary of Houdini’s death, in an attempt to contact her husband, until the dramatic final séance, which was held in 1936 on the rooftop of the Knickerbocker Hotel. On that occasion Mrs. Houdini declared that she had not received a message, and that she expected she never would. This of course did not stop others from persisting in the attempt, and to this day people gather every Halloween and try to receive a message from Houdini.
After Valentino’s death, numerous people began to report spirit contact with him, including his ex-wife Natacha Rambova, who claimed that she had received reports from her ex-husband concerning his condition on “the other side.” Many of the people who visited Valentino’s tomb in the early years after his passing said that they were drawn there due to spiritual messages from Valentino. In subsequent decades a “voice medium” named Leslie Flint claimed that Valentino spoke through him, and he conducted many sessions where he channeled the spirit of Valentino
As I said, I’m from the magic world, and I’m going to close my remarks with a magic trick. It’s a séance-parlor classic that Houdini could explain to you in a blink; however, I’m going to attempt to receive a message from my fellow believer, Valentino.
[Display pair of slates.]
It should be said that in the 1920’s these type of slates were common, everyday objects. Now when you see them, they do seem to be “for séance use only.”
[Actions with the slates follow the description below.]
The idea is that the medium – in this case, me – displays the slates as being empty on both sides. The slates are then bundled together and tied securely so that no human agency can get to them. A piece of chalk is provided for the spirit’s use, and the entire packet is isolated where no one can touch it
[Slates isolated on a chair before the podium.]
To summon the spirit of Valentino, I’m going to quote the author of “A Tribute From the Mothers of the World to Rudolph Valentino,” and join her in her praise of his “portrayal of a love so healing, helpful, and sustaining in its whole-heartedness…” that it can – perhaps – turn eternal death into a night of glorious dreams
Let us see if we have received a message from Valentino
[First slate reads LOVE – displayed to audience. Second slate reads BE.]
[Final image of my arms spread wide, displaying message BE LOVE.]

Thank you, Lisa!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Houdini makes the list of Falling Stars

Houdini has dubious honor of warranting a chapter in the new book, Falling Stars: 10 Who Tried to be a Movie Star by David W. Menefee.

The title pretty much explains what the book is about -- a look at ten famous personalities who attempted, without success, to make it in the movies.

Falling Stars: 10 Who Tried to be a Movie Star is available as a paperback or eBook from

Tour 'Masters of Illusion' with Mike Caveney, Nov. 15

Magician, historian, and award-winning author Mike Caveney will give a guided walkthrough tour of Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age at the Skirball Cultural Center on Tuesday, November 15 at 2:30 p.m.

Masters of Illusion, which was the companion exhibition to this summer's Houdini Art and Magic, includes a very impressive collection of Houdini artifacts from the collection of John Gaughan and others, and even a few Hardeen mementos.

This will be the last special public program scheduled for the exhibition, which will be on view until January 8, 2012. For more information and to buy tickets online CLICK HERE.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New book finds Houdini in San Diego

The new book The Way We Were in San Diego by San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Richard W. Crawford contains a chapter about Houdini's one and only (professional) visit to the city in October of 1907.

Crawford recounts how Houdini performed at The Grand Theater on Fifth Street on Oct. 7, 8, and 9. During his engagement he escaped from a packing crate constructed by Marston's Dept Store. Crawford has also uncovered a notice (reproduced in the book) saying that Houdini would dive handcuffed from the top of Spreckle's wharf into San Diego Bay. However, for reason's unknown, Houdini didn't do the escape. [See update.]

Purchase The The Way We Were in San Diego by Richard W. Crawford on

Photo of Houdini and Bessie "On our way to San Diego, Calif" from Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning.

UPDATE: Turns out Houdini did do the San Diego stunt.  Read: Proof of Houdini's daring dive in San Diego.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Rose Mackenberg manuscript and Houdini's crystal ball (?) hit eBay

Here's something intriguing. A seller has listed on eBay what they claim is Houdini's crystal ball along with memorabilia from Houdini's chief spiritualist agent, Rose Mackenberg, including a copy of her unpublished manuscript, So You Want To Attend A Séance? Here is the auction description:

HOUDINI’S CRYSTAL BALL – GENUINE! Comes with provenance
YES – this is the real thing. It has been a family treasure for many decades.
Harry Houdini – the famous magician and escape artist owned this crystal ball. [...] After his death the crystal ball belonged Houdini’s associate, the woman known as “The Ghost Detective” and “The Spook Spy” - Rose Mackenberg. The extraordinary career of Rose Mackenberg began during the 1920’s when, as a private detective in her native city of New York, she consulted the famous Houdini on the case of a fake medium. Her successful trapping of the culprit brought an invitation from the great Master of Escapism to join him in his crusade against spiritualists who were falsely leading innocent victims into bankruptcy and unhappiness. From then until his death, Harry Houdini, employed Rose Mackenberg as his detective to travel from town to town ahead of his show posing as a believer, while actually investigating what the local mediums were up to and if any of them might somehow be legitimate. Houdini had publicized a prize of $10,000 that he would give to anyone who could convincingly prove before a distinguished jury of notables that he or she was able to contact spirits from another world. The fortune was never claimed.
In all the years she worked for him, Miss Mackenberg’s efforts only produced one expose after another of charlatans feeding upon the sorrows and misfortunes of a gullible public.
Later Miss Mackenberg toured the lecture circuits speaking on “exposing the tricks of the spiritualist trade.” She also continued her detecting on behalf of Chambers of Commerce, newspapers, Better Business Bureaus and other civic institutions across the United States.
Miss Mackenberg became friends with Virginia Myers, daughter of the famous American artist Jerome Myers (whose works can be seen in over 90 museums throughout the U.S.). Virginia was famous in her own right as a dancer, both in one woman performances at Carnegie Hall and in Broadways shows. Miss Mackenberg gave a signed photo of herself – “To Virginia a swell gal & a good pal. Sincerely Rose, New Year’s Day 1951.” Viginia Myers was the mother of my husband.
Rose Mackenberg, in her will, bequeathed to Virginia Myers the Houdini Crystal Ball as well as photos, lecture programs, newspaper and magazine write-ups, etc. More importantly, she left to Virginia the only (as far as we know) original, manually typewritten final draft of her manuscript relating her experiences working for Houdini and the intimate knowledge she gained of the whole panorama – “So You Want To Attend A Séance?” Copies of all available material will be included with the Crystal Ball. (Publishing rights not included.)
Houdini’s Crystal Ball is shown on a 5” x 5” black cushion. The Ball itself is approx. 3 ½” in diameter. It has a few tiny flaws and scuff marks, all of which attest to its long, well used life. Feel free to contact us with any questions.

I'm not sure what to make of this. The seller does provide nice provenance, but there is no account of Houdini owning a crystal ball of any kind. He doesn't strike me as a crystal ball kind of guy, frankly. But this doesn't mean it didn't belong to him. Houdini owned and displayed several magic wands, but to my knowledge never used one himself (photos show he used a large baton).

I actually find the copy of Rose's manuscript, So You Want To Attend A Séance?, to be the more exciting and potentially more valuable item in this lot, especially as it is an unpublished manuscript (I've confirmed this with the seller). It could provide details of Houdini and Rose's investigations and relationship that we've never heard before.

One thing is for sure, the $25,000 price tag is a little...optimistic. Even if this crystal ball did belong to Houdini, that's a pretty steep number, considering one of his Flight of Time alarm clocks fetched only $1,600 in a recent auction.

The auction (#300617664555) runs until November 10 and can be found HERE.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Christie's London to auction Houdini straitjacket, Nov. 23

The Houdini straitjacket authenticated by magician Murray SawChuck on a recent episode of Pawn Stars will be auctioned by Christie's in London on November 23, 2011. The sale is 6214: Pop Culture: Film & Entertainment Memorabilia. The straitjacket is Lot 71 and the auction estimate is $23,000 - 30,000.

The auction also features several other Houdini items, including a curious green sack (Lot 70) that is simply described as "used by Harry Houdini for escapology tricks circa 1915." As it references the straitjacket lot for provenance, it appears this belongs to the same seller. Could this be the sack used during Metamorphosis? The sack carries an estimate of $1,600-2,300.

The straitjacket -- which I'm convinced is indeed the straitjacket Houdini used for several of his suspended escapes -- was given to the seller's grandfather, Paul J. Campbell (a salesman for Fleetwood Coffee), by Houdini's brother Theo. Hardeen "in late 1927 or early 1928." It has been in the family ever since.

The jacket first surfaced in the popular TV show Pawn Stars where star Rick Harrison made an offer of $25,000. The owner refused and instead listed it on eBay with a starting price of $149,000, where it cycled several times unsold.

Looks like the auction house has carried forward the misdating of the photo of Houdini in the jacket as 1915. According to Patrick Culliton, it's more likely 1923 (and I concur).

UPDATESOLD! Houdini straitjacket captures $46,980 at Christie's.